Montclair, NJ – There has been no information regarding the status of Montclair’s town manager but Councilor Bob Russo made some revealing statements Monday night at the end of a long public comment session where frustrated residents called for transparency.
Russo responded to a question posed by resident Lani Sommer-Padilla during public comment. She asked if Montclair town manager Timothy Stafford had asked for a public hearing, and if not, why had the council not voted to fire him yet?
Earlier in public comment, resident Christina Thomas also mentioned the town manager, saying she had asked months ago whether he had requested a public hearing and received no response. Thomas also asked if Stafford had filed any sort of Notice of Claim.
Montclair’s Town Council had voted in early February to end temporary administrative leave for Stafford and then adopted a preliminary resolution stating reasons for removal of Stafford pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93
The resolution stated the Council of the Township of Montclair “has determined it is in the best interest of the Township to go in a different management direction.”
The resolution ended speculation that the town manager might return, but there has been no further communication about the town manager’s status since the February 8 meeting voting to initiate his removal.
Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93, Stafford was subject to removal effective on or after 30 days from the date of the resolution, but he was suspended from duty and was to be paid his salary for up to three calendar months following adoption of this preliminary resolution. The Town Manager can reply in writing and request a public hearing which would have taken place no later than 30 days from filing the request. After a public hearing, if one is requested, and after full consideration, the Township Council may then, by a majority vote of its members, adopt a final resolution of removal.
On Monday, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who was presiding over the council meeting in Mayor Sean Spiller’s absence, referred the question from Sommer-Padilla to the Township’s legal team.
Acting town attorney Paul Burr said he was unable to comment because there was “litigation, actually pre-litigation on a personnel matter.”
Russo wanted to know why the constituent could not get an answer.
“Why can’t we tell the public and press anything? Can’t we tell them ‘the man wanted a hearing, then he didn’t want a hearing, then he wanted a hearing again, then we postponed it two weeks. What’s wrong with telling the public that? So I just did it, okay. Lock me up!” said Russo. “The guy is stalling, prolonging and trying to beat us over the head for money,” said Russo, adding that he was a truth teller and the Township was “heading toward a big problem” unless “we just have the man terminated.”
Later in the meeting, it was Russo who asked why the Council was voting to award a contract not to exceed $80,000 for Eric M. Bernstein & Associates for tax appeal attorney services, when Bernstein is principal at the law firm representing Stafford in the suit brought by Montclair CFO Padmaja Rao.
Russo wasn’t the only councilor answering questions posed by a constituent during public comment. Bonnie Fogel came to the podium and asked all the councilors how they feel about the action initiated Councilor Yacobellis, involving two individuals, one of which is a constituent.
Councilor Lori Price Abrams and Councilor David Cummings would not comment. Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, responding as a lawyer and not as deputy mayor, said “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any pending legal actions — and I say actions with an ‘s’ — because there’s a lot of them right now. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to respond.”
“I will tell you how I feel,” said Councilor Robin Schlager. “About a month ago, a constituent, a member of the public, came up to the podium and attacked me and I walked out of the meeting. As a person, as a woman, and somebody who has feelings, it’s very, very difficult to sit up here sometimes. I understand how the Councilman [Yacobellis] could have felt, because I felt that way, too. I feel everybody should do what they feel is best in their heart. And that’s what he felt was best to do. Just like I got up and walked out.”
Councilor Bob Russo said he had been on the council 23 years and he had “never seen as much dysfunction in government as I see now.”
2023 Budget Hearing Moved to May
While Russo revealed that a hearing with Timothy Stafford might take place, a significant portion of the meeting was focused on a different hearing — the 2023 budget hearing and when that would take place, and reactions to the council members first receiving the 2023 budget on Friday.
By the time public comment was over, it was already 9:30 p.m. A budget presentation was started and then ultimately stopped, after Councilor Lori Price Abrams and Councilor Yacobellis voiced concerns about not having time to review. There were also questions about what voting to introduce the budget would mean for the timing of the budget process.
After some back and forth regarding whether to table the resolution, the Council voted 5-1 instead to introduce the budget (Russo abstained), but extend the adoption of the budget so the hearing would take place on May 16th, rather than on April 25. By extending the time frame, Councilor Yacobellis, Councilor Robin Schlager and Councilor Lori Price Abrams, would also have an opportunity to meet with the budget team and ask questions before any public hearing.
Defense and Indemnification Ordinance Passed on First Reading
The Town Council also introduced an ordinance Monday entitling officers or employees of the Township, whether elected or appointed (except employees of the Township Police Department or Fire Department) to a defense or indemnification under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-28 and 40A:1 4-1 55.
The ordinance would apply to any pending, threatened or completed civil, criminal, administrative or arbitrative action, suit or proceeding, and any appeal, inquiry or investigation which could lead to an action, suit or proceeding.
The ordinance states the Township Attorney shall provide for the defense of any legal action or proceeding against an employee arising out of an act or omission within the scope of employment or authority provided the employee. The employee would requests a legal defense in writing and provide the Township Attorney any summons, complaint, process, notice, demand, or pleading.
Councilor Russo asked about the genesis of this ordinance.
Assistant Township Attorney Gina DeVito said some questions were raised by members of the council and the legal department reviewed the code and found that Montclair, unlike many other municipalities, did not have this indemnification in its code. DeVito said they reviewed many ordinances from other municipalities and conferred with outside counsel.
“I don’t want to throw my colleagues under the bus,” said Russo, adding that he believed this ordinance was a response to whether council members should receive health care benefits from the Township under the state plan.
Both DeVito and Burr asked Russo and the rest of the council to refrain from speaking about pending litigation.
“I am reminding you as we are talking about the indemnification and defense ordinance that the township is lacking, to be mindful that statements made in public could waive indemnification of yourselves in the capacity that you are acting as elected officials and subject you to some liability issues,” said Burr.
The ordinance passed on first reading, with Russo abstaining. A second reading will take place at the next council meeting.